Billie Holiday

Nothing quite captures the myth of the vinyl-era music industry as a benevolent autocracy like the narrative of the career-making audition. A scruffy young unknown hitchhikes from the mine country of Minnesota to midtown Manhattan, where a white-haired and golden-eared man in a suit hears something in the boy that no one else has noticed and signs him to a record contract, through which fame and glory ensue.

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Identity is a wildly elastic thing in the world of pop stardom, and it always has been. As human objects of fantasy, pop stars provide a way for their fans to project their maddest dreams of transformation. Eleanora Fagan escapes a torturous childhood, slips a gardenia in her hair, and becomes Billie Holiday. Robert Zimmerman shakes off his middle-class Jewish background, takes on a rockabilly persona and starts singing under the name of Elston Gunn, only to change his mind and go with a third identity, Bob Dylan. Farrokh Bulsara turns into Freddie Mercury. Onika Maraj becomes Nicki Minaj.

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Oohs and Aaahs

Tony Bennett: The Complete Collection Sony Music More than thirty stars of contemporary or recent-vintage pop, rock, and country music sing with Tony Bennett on his two CDs of cross-generational collaborations, Duets and Duets II, the second of which was released shortly after Bennett’s eighty-fifth birthday last summer. The albums are narratives of pilgrimage. Most of the guest singers, who include Lady Gaga and Faith Hill, are young or youngish; and the oldish ones, such as Paul McCartney and Aretha Franklin, are considerably younger than the singer who brought them together.

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Stolen Moments

Abbey Sings Abbey Abbey Lincoln Love Is What Stays Mark Murphy Near the end of 1956, two young jazz singers made their first albums: Abbey Lincoln's Affair … A Story of a Girl in Love, released by Liberty Records, a quality-conscious shoestring operation, and Meet Mark Murphy, issued by Decca, then a major jazz-pop label. Lincoln was twenty-six and black and a woman, Murphy twenty-four and white and a man, and both had talent and looks. For half a century, they followed separate and circuitous but roughly parallel career paths.

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The Lonesome Road

Haunted Heart: A Biography of Susannah McCorkle By Linda Dahl I cannot say I had the pleasure of hearing Susannah McCorkle sing. I heard her perform many times--at least a dozen, perhaps twenty times from the spring of 1981, when my late friend Roy Hemming, a pedigreed cabaret hound, first brought me to see her at Michael's Pub, to the autumn of 2000, when she had her final run at the Oak Room in the Algonquin. I went to three of her last ten shows.

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War

The air campaign that the United States, with the morally spectacular assistance of Great Britain, inaugurated against Afghanistan on October 7 appears designed to make the medieval kingdom of the Taliban safe for operations closer to the ground. Army helicopters and commando units seem destined for the next phase of the campaign, so as to find the caves in which Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and the other self-styled Saladins are hiding. Sooner or later American special ops forces, armed not least with their recollections of the ruins in New York and Washington, will find them.

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The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks by Randall Robinson (Plume, 262 pp., $13) I can buy a big house in an exclusive neighborhood. I can buy a fancy car or two. I can send my kids to private school. I can work hard and empower myself. Oprah Winfrey pulled herself up by the bootstraps.

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